What has actually changed under Trump?

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Anthony Zurcher -North America reporter @awzurcher on Twitter

It’s a quarter of the way through Donald Trump’s presidential term – long enough to judge his performance so far.

There have been promises kept, promises broken and promises ignored. But how much have his policies changed things?

A business tycoon with no political experience, he said he came to Washington to make waves.

Has he succeeded?

 

Immigration

The Trump administration tackled the immigration issue pretty much right out of the gate, with its ill-fated executive order closing the US border to entrants from a handful of majority-Muslim nations. Implementation of that effort led to chaos at US airports and a quick suspension at the hands of US courts.

Since then, the White House has rolled out two new border orders, adding a few countries to the banned list and removing one (Sudan). The latest measures have, at least so far, largely withstood legal challenge.

Immigration enforcement has also been ramped up – 143,470 arrests for violations for the year ending in October – a 30% increase.

Mr Trump also announced an end to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Immigrants (Daca) programme, which granted normalised residency status to roughly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who entered the US when they were young. The order has been temporarily suspended by the court, and is the subject of ongoing negotiations in Congress.

About 200,000 Salvadoreans face an uncertain future because the White House has brought their temporary protected status (TPP) to an end.

Mr Trump is pushing for sweeping changes to the US immigration system, including reductions in the total number of entrants, the termination of the visa lottery system and greatly reducing the ability of current US residents to bring relatives into the country. Those measures will be strongly opposed by Democrats, however.

As for the Mexican border wall, perhaps the most memorable of Mr Trump’s campaign promises, funding is still in doubt and – and the money to pay for it will almost certainly come from US taxpayers, not Mexico.

Making waves? The president has sweeping authority on immigration and border issues – and he’s used it, even if some lower courts have tried to clip his wings. Still, there’s nothing Mr Trump would like more than to stand in front of a shiny, new border wall.

 

The courts

Because of the controversial move by Senate Republicans to block consideration of Barack Obama’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat in 2016, Mr Trump had the opportunity to put his mark on the high court just months after taking office.

The president’s judicial accomplishments stretch well beyond one Supreme Court pick, however. Senate Republicans also largely refused to confirm Mr Obama’s lower court nominees for the last two years of his term, leaving a record number of open slots for Mr Trump to fill. He’s had 12 circuit court and six district court judges confirmed so far. There are currently 149 vacancies left – with 47 presidential nominees awaiting Senate approval.

All these judges will hold lifetime appointments, guaranteeing that after one year in office Mr Trump has already cemented a lasting conservative legacy on the US judicial branch. It’s also a reason Republicans are eager to maintain control of the Senate in the upcoming mid-term elections. If Democrats take control, expect Mr Trump’s ability to get his people on the federal bench.

Making waves? Through fortune and political force of will, the stars have aligned for conservatives eager to make their mark on the judiciary. Some were concerned that Mr Trump may be unreliable when it comes to picking nominees, but he’s more than exceeded their expectations.

 

Infrastructure

In his inaugural address, Mr Trump outlined an ambitious new programme of US infrastructure investment.

“We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels, and railways, all across our wonderful nation,” he said. “We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labour.”

Since then, Mr Trump’s big infrastructure plan has always been just around the next bend of the road. Instead, Congress and the administration first focused on healthcare reform, an effort that ended in a string of disappointments. Then they turned their gaze on tax reform, which had a much happier ending.

Aside from a few press events, such as a June announcement of an air traffic control initiative that has since gone nowhere, infrastructure talk has been little more than empty words.

“It’s infrastructure week”, in fact, has become a running joke among Washington insiders grown used to seeing the White House’s intended talking points and objectives derailed by controversies big and small.

Making waves? Where would Mr Trump be today if he had led with a bipartisan infrastructure programme that was met with overwhelming public approval, instead of travel bans and an extended, acrimonious fight over healthcare?

 

Healthcare

For much of the year, it looked as though Mr Trump’s efforts to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a conservative plan would fall flat.

It took two tries for the House of Representatives to pass a bill – which was unceremoniously abandoned by the Senate. The upper chamber’s efforts to craft their own version were dramatically derailed by Senator McCain’s late-night “no vote”, and a subsequent, bare bones effort met with defeat as well.

Beneath those dramatic legislative failures, however, the administration has taken significant steps to chip away at the foundations of the Democrat’s signature law. The president suspended payments to insurance companies to help them control the costs of insuring poorer, sicker Americans. The administration greatly curtailed efforts to encourage Americans to sign up on the government-run health insurance exchanges – although enrolment numbers held firm in 2017.

Congressional Republicans also placed a stick of Obamacare dynamite in the tax bill the passed in December, repealing the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance as of January 2019. The move could lead healthier Americans to forego insurance until they get sick, driving up premiums.

Meanwhile, under Mr Trump’s watch, Congress has yet to renew a health-insurance programme for children from less-affluent families, causing concern among states that manage the system. In October Mr Trump declared opioid addiction to be a public-health emergency, although no new resources have been allotted to deal with the situation and the order will expire later in January.

Making waves? It’s taken a year, but Mr Trump is making strides toward repealing Obamacare. The “replace” portion of the task, however, is still far out of reach.

 

Trade

In meetings with foreign leaders, the president has repeatedly emphasised “reciprocal” trade and encouraged friendly nations to buy US-made products.

The president quickly ended US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and initiated talks with Canada and Mexico to restructure the North American Free Trade Agreement – negotiations that presently seem to be severely strained.

The US and Canada have also been mired in a dispute over softwood lumber, dairy products and aircraft sales, leading to US “duty investigations” that could lead to new tariffs. In January, Canada filed a formal complaint against the US with the World Trade Organisation, alleging violations of international rules.

Although Mr Trump talked up confrontation with China on the campaign stump, action toward the US’s largest trading partner has been muted. Meanwhile, the US trade deficit with China grew to $35.4bn in November, the largest gap over two years.

The overall US trade deficit in November was $50.5bn, the largest in five years, indicating that the total mark for 2017 could reach five-year highs as well.

While Mr Trump campaigned on closing the US trade gap, the widening deficit can be attributed largely to continued US economic growth.

Making waves? Mr Trump has hinted at big trade moves to come, but in the first year the primary change is that US support for expanding free trade across the world has ground to a halt.

Tax reform

At the end of 2017, Mr Trump boasted that he had signed more legislation than any previous president. While that claim was clearly not true – the 94 bills that reached his desk rank well behind John F Kennedy’s 684 and trail all modern presidents – he did close out the year with one major legislative accomplishment.

Mr Trump promised voters he would enact major tax reform on individuals and businesses, and in the waning days of 2017 Republicans – with no Democratic support – enacted sweeping tax cuts for businesses and many Americans. Top personal rates were slashed, a tax credit for families with children was doubled and the standard deduction for individuals who do not itemise their tax returns was increased.

The total cost of the changes to the tax code has been estimated at $1.5tn over 10 years – and it would be more, except the individual tax reductions are set to expire after eight years.

Some of Mr Trump’s more ambitious reform goals were left on the cutting room floor, however. While there are provisions to allow corporations to repatriate oversees earnings and changes to a more territorial based business tax system to discourage outsourcing, there’s little to encourage existing overseas factories to relocate back to the US.

In addition, the carried-interest loophole used by hedge-fund managers and other powerful Wall Street investors to pay greatly reduced taxes – and which was condemned repeatedly by Mr Trump during the campaign.

There were also some prominent losers in the president’s tax reforms, namely individuals in high-tax, largely Democratic states, who will lose the ability to deduct state and local taxes over a $10,000 cap.

Mr Trump is revelling in the recent announcements by major corporations that they are passing some of their tax savings along to employees and customers – although polls continue to show that many Americans think the new law won’t help their bottom line.

Making waves? Mr Trump can lay claim to the most substantive change to US tax law in 16 years, enacting the kind of massive corporate tax cut that Republicans have been after for decades.

 

The environment

In a mid-December press event, Mr Trump stood in a White House room next to a towering mound of white papers.

“For many decades, an ever-growing maze of regulations, rules, restrictions has cost our country trillions and trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, countless American factories, and devastated many industries,” the president said. “But all that changed the day I took the oath of office.”

While it may not have happened quite so instantly, the first year of the Trump administration has seen a significant reduction in the amount of federal regulation, and no place has that been more marked than in the way the government deals with environmental issues.

Shortly after his inauguration, Mr Trump gave final approval to several long-delayed oil pipelines. The recently completed tax bill opened vast swaths of Alaskan wilderness up to new oil and gas drilling. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt recently announced energy exploration would be permitted off much of the rest of the US coastline (although Florida, with its Republican governor, became a notable exception).

The government’s environmental department, the EPA, also rescinded Obama-era regulations on carbon emissions from coal-based power plants, although those changes will likely be bogged down in legal challenges for years. According to a New York Times tracker, the administration has sought to reverse at least 60 federal environmental regulations and has succeeded in 29 instances.

Mr Trump also greatly reduced the amount of federal protected land in Utah, opening the door for increased development in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. It was the largest such rollback in US history.

On 1 June the president also announced the US was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, although the benchmarks the US agreed to were not mandatory.

Making waves? President Obama had taken significant administrative steps to increase environmental regulation and enforcement over the objection of Republicans in Congress. Now the Trump administration is using that same authority to tear it all down.

 

The economy

Mr Trump’s first year in office has been filled with economic good news. The stock market, as the president frequently points out, is driving to new highs, with the Dow Jones index recently passing the 25,000 mark.

Unemployment, which was at 4.8% when the president took office, has reached a 17-year low of 4.1%. In the third quarter of 2017, gross domestic product growth hit 3.2%, the highest level since the first quarter of 2015.

The hard numbers indicating robust growth are translating into new levels of economic optimism. The US Consumer Confidence Index hit a 17-year high in November, before dropping slightly in December. Also in November, a small-business confidence index hit the highest level in its 45-year history.

Of course all these glowing numbers represent the continuation of trend-lines that began during the Obama administration – a fact that a majority of the nation seems to acknowledge.

In a recent Quinnipiac survey that showed 66% of the public believes the economy is “excellent or good”, 49% think it is because of Mr Obama while only 40% credit Mr Trump.

Making waves? The rising economic tide is buoying Mr Trump’s hopes that a public presently divided about his presidency will eventually give him his due. He has three more years to make his case.

Foreign policy

During his presidential campaign, Mr Trump promised an “America First” foreign policy that asked allies to carry more of the financial and military burden. He’s now had a year to show what that looks like in action.

The president delivered a blunt speech to Nato allies in Belgium, surprising many observers by declining to reiterate US support for the pact’s mutual-defence arrangements

Mr Trump engaged in a very public exchange of insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling him “little rocket man” and saying his nation would be met with “fire and fury” if they continued their bellicose rhetoric.

The most notable use of US military force during Mr Trump’s first year was his missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to that nation’s use of chemical weapons. The highest-profile incident of US combat casualties, on the other hand, came when a group of special forces were ambushed in Niger leading to four deaths – drawing attention to the increased US military presence in Africa.

In Syria and Afghanistan, Mr Trump has given his generals a free hand to prosecute the ongoing military engagements. Over the course of the year, the so-called Islamic State has been largely defeated on the battlefield and its influence curtailed. The conflict in Afghanistan drags on, however, as the president increased the number of US troops there to 14,000. He also recently threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan if it does not do more to support the US fight against Islamic militants.

Mr Trump put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, although the most dramatic development in that area was the president’s move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – thrilling the Israeli government but prompting stern condemnations from Palestinian officials and much of the global community.

With great fanfare, he declined to recertify Iranian compliance with multinational nuclear deal, although that is largely a symbolic act unless sanctions that have been suspended are reimposed.

Making waves? Mr Trump talks about foreign policy like no other modern American president. Critics will say he’s undermining US standing on the world stage, but when it comes to actual policy this isn’t the paradigm shift feared – or hoped for – by some

 

A change of tone

There’s never been an American president quite like Donald Trump.

No one has ever held the office with no prior elective or military leadership experience. No one, in modern times at least, has been as blunt or as disruptive a force on the national and international stage.

For many of the president’s supporters, this is exactly what they wanted. They supported the candidate who told them the system was broken, the other politicians on the stage with him were phony and the process was a joke.

They asked for different, and different is what they got.

Mr Trump has said he is defining “modern day presidential” with his free-form use of social media, his continued practice of giving unscripted campaign-style rally speeches and his willingness to disregard many of the time-honoured traditions of politics.

In some ways his has been a conventional presidency. His court appointments are largely in keeping with conservative desires, his tax package was a longtime Republican wish-list and his efforts at deregulation are out of the party’s anti-big-government playbook.

But the way Mr Trump has operated, and the way he has talked about how he is going about running the nation, has been one-of-a-kind.

Making waves? It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump is permanently changing the way politics is conducted in the US. A quarter of the way through his term in office, however, it should be quite clear that US politics isn’t changing Donald Trump.

 

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